ISTANBUL ― “Did I do the right thing when I brought my kids from the U.S. to Turkey?” a young Turkish scholar asked me last week. We were chatting in the garden of a private university in Izmir, a Turkish city by the Aegean sea. “Friends say it was the wrong decision, but I want my kids to grow up here, in their homeland.”
Although culturally liberal, Izmir hosts some of the most nationalistic citizens of Turkey. The city’s locals are proud inheritors of the Young Turk mentality of the early 20th century, the defiant and nationalist ethos that emerged during the last decades of Ottoman Empire rule and prepared the foundations of the Turkish republic that was established in 1923, best represented by the notions of patriotism, republicanism and secularism. Young Turks have long been suspicious of Western politicians, accusing them of undermining this legacy by way of meddling with Turkey’s domestic politics. Their predecessors were the Young Ottomans, one of the first proper dissent movements in the Ottoman Empire whose representatives favored an Islamic and traditionalist response to the empire’s modernization, demanding to preserve the sultanate while opposing the centralized modernization of their culture at the hands of a shallow bureaucratic class. Today’s young conservatives often follow the lead of Young Ottomans and voice very similar arguments.
As young undergraduates in miniskirts and others playing with their iPhones passed by us, the mother of two described her emotional rift between feelings of pride for the Turkish republic, which she wants to be independent ― ruled from the heart of the republic, Ankara, and refusing its decisions to be interfered with by Brussels or Washington ― and anxiety for the future of her country, where she wants her kids, who have dual citizenship and started school last month, to flourish.
Following the failed military coup on July 15, many Turks have had their “I’ve told you so” moment. Signs of a secretive religious group inside the Turkish state were there for everyone to see ― documented by journalists, ignored by politicians. In researching for his book, “The Imam’s Army,” Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık revealed that some 80 percent of the Turkish police force consisted of members of the Gülen movement. Before he could publish the book, Şık was placed behind bars, charged with threatening and defaming civil servants for their duties.
Who are we and where are we headed ― these are the questions that had been keeping young Turks busy for the better part of last century.
After the revelations following the coup, Turkey can go in numerous directions. Nowadays young people here are expected to exercise what the English poet John Keats has famously described as “negative capability”: a power to deal with the unknown and direct their fates as the unforeseeable future takes shape. For those who are not associated with political or religious groups, the level of uncertainty is all the more intense. Who are we and where are we headed ― these are the questions that had been keeping young Turks busy for the better part of last century ― and they have become even more relevant now after the coup.
In the past year people started to talk about a reawakening of Kemalism, the ideology that lies at the center of the republic and the Young Turk spirit. Suspicious of religious organizations taking root at the state, so as to keep it neutral, Kemalists have been strong supporters of modernization and the ideal of progress. Now the government, too, seems to push for a program of modernization while purging religiously-affiliated civil servants from its body.
In Izmir I asked a group of youngsters whether secularism itself is not a bit like a religion, and a young English undergraduate laughed off my suggestion, saying, “I surely define myself as a secular, without any regrets.”
In the 2000s, young people like her say they were advised by liberal and leftist leaders to be a bit ashamed of such beliefs. Both progressive and conservative political commitments, at the time, were seen as dangerous things that needed to be cooled down in the neutral waters of pro-market liberalism. My young conservative friends at the university had tried to strip off their ideas (their critique of westernization, modernization, Europeanization and so on) since they believed that the governing mood of pro-EU liberalism represented a divergence from that conservative vein of thought.
Those who liked Young Turk ideas that continue to have a lasting influence among Turkey’s youth, meanwhile, were forced to carefully conceal those, since republicanism had become dangerous in the wake of the ambitious “Ergenekon” investigation into a supposed “terror organization” whose members, according to state prosecutors, could include anyone with sympathies for the republican cause.
At Yaşar University in Izmir’s campus last month, undergrads seemed uninterested in the political tribulations felt so acutely over the summer in the capital Ankara and Istanbul, where I live. The university was hosting a Shakespeare conference, and I was scheduled to talk there about “The Comedy of Errors,” a play set in Ephesus, an hour’s drive from Izmir. Over discussion sessions students talked freely about the struggle between forces of order and imagination, over the silencing of the women in Elizabethan England and the uncontrollable nature of human passions. From the stories I listened to after the conference, I got the impression that prospective Shakespeareans here were watching the political drama that had been unfolding in their country as if it was a tragic work of theater. A leading Shakespearean scholar, head of a university department, described how she witnessed the bombing of the parliament and the police headquarters in Ankara from her flat located on a hill overlooking these buildings on the night of the coup attempt a few months ago. She remained in shock for the following days, she said.
The next conference at the university would focus on trauma. Students told me, “what an ideal subject that is for post-coup Turkey.” Meanwhile, there was little appetite among the group of people in these university sessions for the theory that the coup was staged. The coup was the latest in a series of traumatizing events in this country: so far this year, three sets of events involved suspected militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State detonating suicide belts on Istanbul’s commercial heart Istiklal Avenue, its tourist center Sultanahmet and its main airport Atatürk. Add to this daily attacks against cops and civilians by the armed Kurdish PKK movement, and you begin to understand why people feel so anxious.
People unfamiliar with Turkey’s modern history have little understanding of the kinds of ideas that make young people here tick. Many of the youngsters I’d met and interviewed for a book I wrote about Turkey’s angry youth over the course of the past two years, were well-versed in the histories of the country’s youth movements that continue to fuel their passions.
I got the impression that prospective Shakespeareans here were watching the political drama that had been unfolding in their country as if it was a tragic work of theater.
Young conservatives I interviewed, for example, are inclined to think that the last great Ottoman sultan, Abdulhamid, was harshly treated by Young Turks and that Turkey would be better off had it kept its royal institutions, like in Britain. The idea of an Ottoman nation, devoid of racial affiliations, continues to fascinate them to this day, and most young conservative undergraduates in Turkey are electrified by young Islamic movements in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. They also have close links to the conservative Turkish community in Germany whose problems under a right-wing regime they watch from a distance with concern. Young Turk students, meanwhile, see themselves as part of the deep-rooted tradition of rebellion against their country’s monarch. You would think it was the 1890s here: among young people, that pre-republican era is exactly the historical period in which they find their ideological predecessors.
The shared feature of both youth movements, meanwhile, is a strong suspicion of foreign meddling into Turkey’s affairs. Last week, a leading socialist figure called the July 15 coup, “a clear coup attempt by NATO.” Young conservatives and socialists seem to agree on the foreign source of the failed uprising.
Before leaving Izmir I told the young Turkish scholar that her decision to raise her children in Turkey was, in my opinion, an admirable one. She and her husband had left Turkey years ago for a job offer in the U.S. that paid very well compared to what was available to them in Turkey. Having enjoyed that period of security, they felt it necessary to return to their homeland and raise their kids in Izmir.
For them and many others, the aftermath of the coup attempt and the anxious feeling of concern for Turkey’s future seems to translate into a willingness to do something about it ― and that is the best description of negative capability I have heard so far. “Independence is my character,” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk famously said in his 1919 book, “The Great Speech.” His words, inscribed on the walls of numerous public buildings here, have rarely resonated more in Turkey.
Kaya Genç, a Turkish novelist, is the author of “Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey.”